Its Primitiveness to Combat
For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. (3:7–8)
James’s point in these two verses is simply that the human tongue is innately uncontrollable and untamable. It is wild, undisciplined, irresponsible, irrepressible, and savage. In what might be called its primitive or intrinsic evil, it combats every effort to control and direct it.
Every species includes animals that walk and fly, beasts and birds, as well as those that crawl and swim, the reptiles and creatures of the sea. Animals from each of those categories are being tamed and have been tamed by the human race. The wildest, smartest, fastest, most powerful, and most elusive of creatures are subject to man’s taming. Even after the Fall, Noah was able to bring every kind of animal into the ark in pairs without serious incident. Although the task of Noah and his family to take care of those thousands of creatures was surely daunting in the extreme, there is no record of any of the animals attacking or harming their keepers, or each other, in any way. For centuries, the major attraction of circuses has been the wild animal acts, in which lions, tigers, and other powerful and dangerous animals do tricks at the command of a human trainer. In that regard they are less primitive and more civilized and controllable than the unregenerate, unsanctified tongues of their masters.
But no one, that is, no human being in his own power, can tame the tongue. Even in believers, the tongue can easily slip out of its sanctified cage, as it were, and do great harm. Its work can be so subtle that it sometimes escapes notice until the damage is done. Well aware of that danger, David prayed, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3). Even the godly Paul confessed: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (Rom 7:18). He could not trust himself to keep his tongue, or any other part of his unredeemed flesh, in check. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,” he reminded believers in Galatia; “for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17).
As noted earlier in this commentary chapter, Adam’s first sin after the Fall not only was slander but slander against God, indirectly blaming his own disobedience on the Lord for having given him Eve, who tempted him to eat of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:12). By contrast, the first act of the new creations in Christ, who became the church, was to praise God with their purified tongues, “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:11).
Restless translates akatastatos, the same word rendered “unstable” in 1:8. In this context, the meaning goes well beyond that of restless, suggesting the idea of a wild animal fighting fiercely against the restraints of captivity. This evil chafes at confinement, always seeking a way to escape and to spread its deadly poison. Its “venom” is more deadly than a snake’s because it can destroy morally, socially, economically, and spiritually.
David was a soldier’s soldier, a man of military renown who had fought powerful enemies. But he realized that the most dangerous enemies are those who attack with words. He therefore prayed:
Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy. Hide me from the secret counsel of evildoers, from the tumult of those who do iniquity, who have sharpened their tongue like a sword. They aimed bitter speech as their arrow, to shoot from concealment at the blameless; suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear. They hold fast to themselves an evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly; they say, “Who can see them?” They devise injustices, saying, “We are ready with a well-conceived plot”; for the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep. But God will shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly they will be wounded. So they will make him stumble; their own tongue is against them; all who see them will shake the head. Then all men will fear, and they will declare the work of God, and will consider what He has done. The righteous man will be glad in the Lord and will take refuge in Him; and all the upright in heart will glory. (Ps. 64:1–10)
The poisonous lies of Laban’s sons against Jacob drove him and his family out of the land and devastated Laban’s own home and family life (Gen. 31). The venomous tongue of Doeg the Edomite lying to King Saul about David and Ahimelech the priest resulted in the brutal massacre of eighty-five priests as well as the entire priestly city of Nob (1 Sam. 22:9–19). The deceitful princes of Ammon also lied about David, accusing him of hypocrisy in honoring Nahash their king and Hanun, his son and successor. Believing the lies, Hanun assembled an enormous force of his own soldiers, along with Aramean mercenaries, of which some seven hundred charioteers and forty thousand horsemen and their commander were needlessly slaughtered by David’s forces—all because of a lie! (2 Sam. 10). When Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to King Ahab, Queen Jezebel conspired to have two men falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy, which resulted in his being stoned to death (1 Kings 21:1–13). As recorded in the book of Esther, Satan attempted to use the lies of Haman to exterminate exiled Jews in Medo-Persia, but was thwarted by Esther and her cousin, Mordecai. Our Lord Himself was put to death because of lies (Matt. 26:57–60). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death because he was falsely accused of blaspheming Moses and God (Acts 6:8–7:60).
7–8 James’s discussion of the tongue’s destructiveness continues by comparing it to the wildest of animals. James notes that every species of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by human beings. “Tamed” can also mean “controlled” or “subdued.” The point is that, in relation to the other species of the earth, humans are distinct. In the creation of people and animals on the sixth day (Ge 1:24–28) God stated this distinction explicitly. He proclaimed in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” James’s point is that the creation mandate of ruling over the lesser beasts had been carried out. Animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures are subdued. One must not think here of “tamed” as in a circus; rather, James has in mind humans as dominant.
Yet, irony of ironies, that small beast, the tongue, defies subjugation. James states plainly, “but no man can tame the tongue.” He probably speaks hyperbolically in v. 8, since his appeal is that those of the congregations do just that. Yet the two descriptions at the end of the verse leave no room for doubt concerning the seriousness with which the tongue must be taken. Like a wild animal pacing about, attack and tearing in its every thought, the tongue is a “restless evil.” The word “restless” (akatastatos, GK 190) also connotes the concept of being “unstable” and occurs in James’s description of the double-minded person of 1:8. In one ancient work, slander is personified as a “restless demon” (Shepherd of Hermas, Mand. 2:3). Moreover, this wild animal is full of death-dealing poison. The thought parallels Paul’s quote of Psalm 140:3 at Romans 3:13. There the apostle conflates a number of OT passages to speak of the comprehensive nature of human sin, pointing out that sin is often associated with the “mouth” (i.e., speech). He includes the quotation from Psalm 140:3, a psalm that describes wicked people of violence who devise evil plans and slander with their poisonous tongues: “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” So too James points out that the tongue is like a wild, poisonous animal that kills with its blows.
7–8 James continues to justify his criticism of the tongue: irreducible to order is preferable in itself (lectio difficilior, lectio potior) to the variant reading, the commonplace “unruly,” and also as characteristically opening the “rondo” on the duplicity of the tongue, beginning here and closing on the same note in the question in v. 12. In 1:8 the word is used (with “doubleminded”) to denote another aspect of “two-mindedness” which is the gravamen of James’s charge against the tongue (3:8–12). Here we interject a suggestion that the reader might profitably notice James’s recurrent detestation of precisely such insincerity and inconstancy in general: it is one of the main threads in his thought from 1:8 onward, like its corresponding opposite, “constancy,” from 1:3 onward. In 1:6–8 the words “wavering,” “doubleminded,” “irreducible to order,” and again in 4:8 “doubleminded,” indicate doubt, damaging to the man so described; in 3:2–12 the damage is to others, e.g., in v. 6, by the tongue’s duplicity (see vv. 9–12); hence we suggest “irreducible to order” or “treacherous.”
The complaint against the tongue then is its treacherous inconsistency—an evil irreducible to order, to a consistent character of disciplined obedience and to righteousness. It is the tongue itself, not only its misuse, that is condemned. His characteristically Hebrew emphasis on the mischief of the corporal tongue is not intended to minimize in any way the guilt of the man who is using it, any more than the versatility of the helm excuses the negligent or even malevolent steersman: the case is not parallel to corporal weakness beyond our control. To James the tongue is not merely a disease (see 5:13–19). In plain, and perhaps not really too free English: “the tongue is a monster of inconsistency”—or even better a “monster of caprice” full of deadly venom.
The Greek noun here translated genus does not mean “inborn qualities,” like strength, ferocity, or docility, but KJV “kind,” “every natural sort.” James’s list here is based on Gen. 9:2 and similar lists in Deut. 4:17f.; 1 K. 4:33; Acts 10:12; 11:6. The ancients even speak of tamed fishes: not that fishes are notably savage, as a rule, but even the tongue can (treacherously) be as mild as a tame goldfish punctually awaiting its ants’ eggs.
“Beast” in the NT is used only of undomesticated animals.21 Sea-creatures, here only in the Bible, is common in Greek poetry and late Greek prose.23
Both pagans and Hebrews were proud of man’s lordship over the animal world. As in Ps. 8:6–8, the thought, in biblical and secular literature, of man’s dominion over the animal world comprises both aspects of his power: (i) over what (not to particularize too much) he hunts and traps and perhaps eats; and (ii) over what he domesticates—perhaps for food, like sheep or hens, or perhaps for training and working, like horses and dogs. “Tamed” (EVV) is slightly ambiguous and too strong: so we prefer subdued (Dan. 2:40), “subjected,” or “domesticated.” The domesticating of wild animals is a sign of the Messianic Age (Isa. 11:6, 9). On the point of domesticated animals, it may be relevant to remark that the rich denounced by James regarded and treated the poor workers as cattle; we think that is a fair deduction from what James says of the rich.
James no doubt knew the current sophisticated treatments of this subject, involving man the trainer no less than man the hunter and killer. Whatever he borrowed we can be sure he, like Paul, made his own. Of all animals, says Aristotle, the human young is most intractable. Thinkers like James were understandably indignant when, as Isocrates protests: “Every year men see in the circuses lions that are more gently disposed toward their keepers than some men are toward their benefactors, and bears rolling and wrestling and imitating our skills”; but men are absolutely unable to discipline their own tongues. Man can bridle and break a horse, but he cannot reduce the tongue to discipline.28
The Difficulty: Taming the Tongue (3:7–8)
Having sketched in vivid detail and with clever analogies the problem the tongue presents to the teachers—its propensity to evil—James now proceeds to the difficulty of taming the tongue. James 3:7–8 form a dual sentence, mentioning first the positive capacity of humans to control all the animals of the world (perhaps James did not know about Cairn Terriers) and second the negative incapacity of humans to control the tongue.
Perhaps backing up puts this in better perspective. James’s fundamental point was established in 3:1–2: teachers carry the load of speaking the truth in love, and one who controls the tongue is “perfect.” From that point on James amplifies his points by sketching the problem of controlling the tongue (3:3–6), by exploring the difficulty of controlling the tongue (3:7–8), and by laying out his point again and buttressing that with a series of questions (3:9–11). Once again we need to keep in mind how James proceeds: he is not offering an inductive argument. He states his point first and then elaborates and clarifies it from a variety of angles, but always with a view to exhorting the teachers to guard the tongue. James’s rhetoric, it needs to be emphasized, is decidedly negative and pessimistic, but that rhetoric does not reflect a pessimistic attitude about what he expects from the teachers. The negative rhetoric is designed to gain the hearing of the teachers.
3:7 Humans, and we see this today in zoos, can muster their energies to tame the animal world. This is James’s rhetorical claim, and it will form the foundation for a contrary claim about the human capacity to tame the tongue in v. 8. A few lines from Philo express the ancient first-century pride in what humans had accomplished in taming animals:
Properly, I should say to them, “beasts ought to become tame through association with men.” Indeed I have often known lions and bears and panthers become tame, not only with those who feed them, in gratitude for receiving what they require, but also with everybody else, presumably because of the likeness to those who give them food. That is what should happen, for it is always good for the inferior to follow the superior in hope of improvement.
The NRSV’s “every species” ably translates pasa physis (“all nature”). It could be rendered “take your pick, humans have tamed them all,” and James seems to be indiscriminately referring to any particular species of animal.95 He mentions four categories: “beast and bird, reptile and sea creature.” We are led to think here that he is drawing on the creation mandate to form the foundation for his argument about the tongue: “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth … and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26, 28). Neither “beasts” nor “sea creatures” are mentioned in Genesis. And though “tamed”97 is also not in Genesis, that James brings up a listing like that in Genesis 1:28 and uses “likeness of God” in 3:9 suggests that the creation text and God’s mandate to humans to govern the world lurks behind 3:7–8. It is the success of humans with animals that both impresses James and his readers (and us), and that success will form the foil for the human inability to control the tongue. In fact, James flourishes in his praise of success: he says any animal species “can be tamed and has been tamed” by the human species.100 Some have suggested that “can be tamed” refers to the human appropriation of the Genesis mandate to govern the world for God, while the perfect tense “has been tamed” refers to God’s governance of animals at creation. But James’s choice to see the agent of the taming in “by102 the human species” contradicts that suggestion and, in context, James is not concerned with divine control of the world but with the human capacity and success in controlling animals and their incapacity to control the tongue.
3:8 In hyperbole, James now makes his case for the problem the teachers are facing: “but no one can tame the tongue.” 3:2 claimed that the one who does, in fact, control the tongue is “perfect” and now James forces the urgency of the situation in the hyperbolic claim that no one can do so. Thus, James once again sounds like the Jewish wisdom tradition, even if his rhetoric is stronger:
Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov 12:18).
Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives;
those who open wide their lips come to ruin (13:3).
A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit (15:4).
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (31:26).
The translation above, “no one can tame,” perhaps obscures a subtle nuance that compares taming the animal and inability to tame the human world. This nuance can be seen in a more literal rendering that focuses on James’s comparison of species: “but no one can tame the tongue of humans.” If humans can tame wild animals of all sorts, they still cannot tame the little tongue inside the human. As George Guthrie says it, “Yet, irony of ironies, that small beast, the tongue, defies subjugation.”106
Furthermore, James says the tongue is also “a restless evil” and “full of deadly poison,” and both expressions are primarily concerned with the impact of the tongue on the community. James uses “restless” (akatastatos) and its noun cognate in 1:8 (“the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way”) and 3:16 (“where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind”). Here he combines it with “evil” (kakon). In light of 1 Corinthians 14:33, where the noun cognate (akatastasia) is contrasted to “peace” and where God is dissociated from this restlessness and chaos, the restless evil James has in mind is communal: the teacher who uses his or her tongue to tear apart destroys the stability of the messianic community. Again, we can look to the letter of James itself, that is, to 1:19–21; 2:2–4; 3:13–18; and 4:1–12 for concrete examples of this restless evil.
The tongue is also “full of deadly poison.” Davids is surely right here: the image is so appropriate and so common one should avoid seeking a specific origin of the expression. Perhaps disclosed in James’s use of death-dealing “poison” is a snake bite. Thus, Psalm 140:3: “They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers” (see also Ps 58:3–4; Rom 3:13). And from Qumran, “a lying tongue; as the poison of serpents it bursts forth continuously” (1QHa 13:27). The sources for the abusive tongue are both hell (James 3:6) and the serpent (3:8), and in 3:15 James traces sinful behaviors back to their “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” origin.
James knows control of the tongue marks holiness and love. He also knows that humans have more capacity to tame animals than their tongues, and this is especially important for the teachers of the messianic community. When the tongue is unleashed from its hinges, it destabilizes and deals death to the community. For this reason, James piles on rhetorical exaggeration to gain the attention of the teachers and to press them to perfection.
We Can Tame Anything but the Tongue (3:7–8)
James begins the next verse with the word “for” (esv). That shows he is explaining what he just said. By this we know the tongue is enflamed by hell: mankind can tame anything but the tongue. Every kind of animal “can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7–8 esv).
The tongue is restless, unstable, and liable to break out at any time. It is half-tamed at best. At an aquarium, we may behold whales, dolphins, and seals heeding human commands. At the circus, we see birds, horses, camels, elephants, and even tigers perform their routines. If an animal fails to perform, the trainer barks commands to bring it back into line. But who can force the tongue back into line? There is a touch of poetry in James’s answer:
Every kind of beast can be tamed by humankind,
but no one among humans can tame the tongue.
Humankind subdues every kind of animal, but it cannot subdue itself. James’s literal phrasing is a bit awkward: “No one is able to tame the tongue—among humans.” This stilted language makes us think. Human nature cannot control the tongue, yet the tongue must be tamed. Who then, will tame the tongue?
Augustine explains that James “does not say ‘no one can tame the tongue,’ but ‘no man,’ so that, when it is tamed, we admit that it was done by the mercy of God, the assistance of God, the grace of God.” This clarifies James’s pessimism about the tongue. James says two things: The tongue has vast influence, so we ought to control it. Yet no human can tame the tongue. This is a paradox: James says we must do something that we cannot do. There are two ways to approach this problem.
First, we can soften James’s message. He means it is almost impossible to tame the tongue, therefore we must redouble our efforts. This view says: Since the tongue is the key to holy living, we must bend every effort to control it, for if we do, we control all. James’s illustrations seem to support this view. Just as a bit turns a large horse, just as a rudder turns a large ship, so the tongue the lives of men.
One writer compares the tongue to a master switch. The words that the tongue forms control our thoughts and plans. If the tongue were “well under control” so that it refused to formulate “words of self-pity” or “thoughts of anger … then these things are cut down before they have a chance to live.”
Rudders certainly are important. During World War II, the mightiest German battleship, the Bismarck, sank because its rudder failed. Germany launched the Bismarck to attack Allied shipping. When the British navy intercepted it, the Bismarck sank the Hood, the pride of Britain’s navy, in less than ten minutes. The British put everything into a counterattack while the Bismarck, lightly damaged, steamed to harbor. But one tiny plane dropped a torpedo that struck and irreparably damaged the Bismarck’s rudder. The Bismarck could only go in circles. Within hours, dozens of ships and planes brought all their firepower against that one ship until it sank.
Metaphorical rudders are crucial, too. A misdirected chief officer can wreak havoc upon a corporation. A heedless pastor can decimate a church. The first view says it is very difficult, but we can and must control the tongue, for it is the rudder for human life.
The second view interprets James rather literally. It says: It would be good to tame the tongue, but James says we cannot. Therefore, we must turn elsewhere for help. No one has sufficient self-control to govern his tongue: “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). “No one”—no mere human—“can tame the tongue” (3:8).
3:7–8 / Having said some rather strong things about the tongue, James now turns to arguing his case in detail. His main point will be that the tongue, that is, human speech, is hopelessly evil. He begins with an analogy from nature: “All kinds of species are being tamed and have been tamed by humans.” He is not arguing scientifically: It would not bother him to learn that no one had yet tamed a rhinoceros or that in his day killer whales still lacked human contact; nor is James concerned about whether an animal is fully domesticated. It is enough for him that wild-cats and apes can be brought under human control. This is true, from the prisoner taming the mice and rats in his dungeon, to the elephant driver causing his beast to lift an Indian prince, to the snake charmer in the market and the merchant with birds that fly to him on command. This had been true in the past (have been tamed), but it is not part of some golden age half-forgotten—it is present experience as well (are being tamed). Furthermore, this truth is applicable to all the four major classes of animals: animals (i.e., mammals), birds, reptiles (which includes amphibians), and creatures of the sea.
But what a contrast when one comes to the tongue! No one can tame the tongue: The problem of controlling speech was a byword of the Greek and Hebrew cultures: It was a maxim that James hardly needed to prove. Did not his readers have dozens of things they wished they could “unsay” or many words they had spoken in error? Had they not learned dozens of proverbs to try to help them: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Prov. 13:3). Surely James’ words are self-evident to every honest person.
Instead of being tamed, the tongue is a restless (or unstable) evil. As Hermas would later say, “Defamation is evil; it is a restless demon, never at peace, but always dwells in dissension” (Mandate 2.3). In contrast, God is perfectly single-minded, stable, and at peace, “For God is not a God of disorder [confusion, restlessness, instability] but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). Yet speech is frequently characterized by instability; one believes one has controlled the tongue, then in an unguarded moment a critical, defamatory word slips out. Uncontrollable, restless, unstable—those are also the characteristics of the demonic, as James will soon point out (3:16).
Furthermore, the tongue is full of deadly poison. The psalmist agreed: “They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips” (Ps. 140:3). The comparison with snakes was widespread in Jewish literature, perhaps because the tongue looks a bit like a snake, perhaps because a snake kills with the mouth, and perhaps because the serpent in Eden deceived with its smooth words. There is no evidence that James is depending on any particular passage; he is simply asserting that words are not harmless; they are dangerous, as deadly as poison if they are not controlled. This is James’ answer to the modern tendency to see words as unimportant and cheap.
7. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man,8. but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
James comes to a conclusion on taming the tongue. With the examples of the horse’s bit and the ship’s rudder he has shown the skill and capability of man (vv. 3–4). Now he portrays man as ruler in God’s creation, for man has been given power to rule over all creatures that walk, fly, crawl, and swim (Gen. 1:26, 28; Ps. 8:6–8).
“All kinds of animals.” We should not expect a scientific enumeration of all the species of animals that man has been able to tame. Nevertheless, James lists them in pairs:
wild animals and birds
reptiles and sea creatures
Man has been able to subdue all these creatures, for God has given man the power to rule in his great creation. Man continues to tame animals for his benefit and pleasure. We see this displayed in a circus performance where wild animals obey their trainer who merely cracks a whip, snaps his fingers, or claps his hands. Man has been endowed with a nature that is able to subdue God’s creatures.
Yet man is unable to control his own tongue. When man fell into sin, he lost his ability to govern himself. He lost control of himself and is now ruled by his tongue. Man can tame fierce and powerful animals, yet he cannot tame his own tongue.
James makes no exceptions: “No man can tame the tongue.” With this brief and yet emphatic remark James repeats what he said earlier: “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check” (3:2).
What is man’s tongue? “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The picture is that of a poisonous snake whose tongue is never at rest and whose fangs are filled with lethal venom. Man’s tongue is unstable, elusive, restless. Besides, it is full of a death-bringing poison. Of all the biblical authors, James most descriptively and accurately portrays the nature of man’s tongue (compare Ps. 58:4; 140:3). It is an ugly picture that shows the destructive nature of sin.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 157–159). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 247). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Adamson, J. B. (1976). The Epistle of James (pp. 144–145). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James (pp. 286–290). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Doriani, D. M. (2007). James. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 111–113). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (pp. 83–85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 112–113). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.